Israeli People: Meet the Wide-Ranging, Diverse Population

Who are the Real Israeli People and how can you Meet Them?

The Guide to Israel > Who are the Real Israeli People and how can you Meet Them?
Israel is certainly a puzzling place.  Firstly, relax and don’t worry! It’s also confusing for those of us who live here.  Many visitors to Israel come with a clear idea of who the people are that live on this sliver of land, but leave quite confused.  On the surface, it looks relatively simple. The population breaks down to around 75% Jewish, around 20% Arab and 5% other minorities.  However, the key to understanding who the Israeli people are is to understand the communities of Israel, and this is where things get a little tricky. Let’s explore together the communities that comprise the Israeli people and understand in a little more depth who the modern Israelis are;  (N.B. some communities overlap, and some people may self-identify as belonging to more than one of the following groups - this blog piece just serves to highlight some of the prominent groups.).

Tabel Of Content

Israeli People: Israeli Jews

Israeli People as Secular Jews

  • Overview: For the most part, Israeli people recognize their Jewish identity and heritage as just one facet of their identity. In most cases, celebrate Jewish holidays in some way, but don’t strictly observe the Jewish Sabbath.  No outward indication of religious affiliation – e.g. standard western dress style.
  • Population Size: estimated to represent the largest population group of Israeli people – with some estimates suggesting that Secular Israeli Jews represent around 41% of the population of Israel.
  • Where will you see them? Secular Israeli Jews live all around the country, however Tel Aviv is considered to be the thriving hot bed of Israeli secularism. Some may argue that it is the only city in Israel where Israeli Jewish Secular society has found its fullest expression.  Secular Israelis living in Tel Aviv, often refer to Tel Aviv as “the bubble” – a place that has set itself apart from the rest of the country.    
  • How can you meet them? There’s no better place than on the Tel Aviv Pub Crawl to experience the energy and spirit of “The City that Never Sleeps”.  The next day, make sure to pick up a light breakfast and stroll down the cafe-packed, tree-lined, Rothschild Boulevard. Within a few minutes, you’re likely to come across cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers, street performers, posers, business people, bankers, high-tech workers on their lunch break, Israeli minor celebs…you name it, you’ll witness the plethora of characters that make up Israeli secular society. In addition, while in Tel Aviv, don’t miss out on the hedonism of Tel Aviv’s seafront boardwalk!

Kibbutzniks

  • Overview: The Kibbutzim were traditionally collective agricultural communities that were first established in Israel by Jewish People of Eastern European descent from the early 20th Century onward.  Somebody who originates from a Kibbutz is referred to as a Kibbutznik.
  • Population Size: Kibbutzniks represent approximately 5% of the Israeli people.
  • Where will you see them? Kibbutzim are quite literally dotted all over the length and breadth of the country.  The establishment of Kibutzim was at the heart of the early Zionist movement.  The efforts of these communities to establish agricultural villages in difficult and often hostile conditions is largely credited for creating the backbone of Israeli society, this can be interpreted quite literally, but to some extent philosophically.  Fledgling kibbutzniks, in the first half to mid-20th century, came with the belief and desire that they were reinventing the concept of the ‘European Jew’, through creating a new identity as a farmer or labourer. Early Kibbutzniks came from Russia and the Former Soviet Union and imported with them new farming techniques and socialist ideals.
  • How can you meet them? Visit Maagan Michael – one of the last remaining truly communal Kibbutzim. 

Modern Orthodox Jews

  • Overview: The Modern Orthodox are a fairly broad mix of communities.  However, in general, adherents to Modern Orthodox communities take full part in modern Israeli society, all the while attempting to combine modern life with Jewish religious practice e.g. keeping Shabbat or following a Kosher diet.  Modern Orthodox Jews often self identify as Religious Zionists, they serve in the army or do National Service and work in all sectors of Israeli professional life.  Modern Orthodox mens’ dress code may, on the surface, appear indistinguishable from secular men, with the exception of wearing a skull-cap (Kippa).  Modern Orthodox women are encouraged to dress modestly, for example wearing clothing that covers one’s knees and elbows and perhaps some type of partial head covering. 
  • Population Size: Estimated to represent around 20-30% of the Israeli population.
  • Where will you see them? All over Israel, especially in various neighborhoods of Jerusalem – on Saturday evenings, Gan Sacher park in Jerusalem becomes a popular hang out place for young couples and single Modern Orthodox looking to meet a potential suitor.    

Orthodox / Ultra Orthodox Jews

  • Overview: Orthodox Judaism, also referred to as Haredi Judaism, may for some visitors to Israel, represent the most visually striking form of Judaism. There are many different communities that exist within the world of Orthodox Judaism. These communities are usually marked by very strict uniform dress codes. First time visitors may already be familiar with the general dress code; men tend to dress in a black or navy suit, a white shirt and some form of black headgear or skull cap. Women dress modestly, wearing skirts and blouses that cover their knees and elbows and once married, they often wear a wig to cover their natural hair. The vast majority of Haredi men do not serve in the military. Orthodox men dedicate their life to studying holy scriptures and they are less prevalent in the general workplace where compared with other communities. Increasingly, Orthodox women do integrate into the general workplace. The average Orthodox family is much larger than the national average.  Depending on the community affiliation, either Hebrew or Yiddish may be spoken as the common language. 
  • Population Size: Estimated to be between 11-12% of the population of the Israeli people.  
  • Where will you see them?  They represent the majority in some areas of Jerusalem and in other small cities around the country, for example Beit Shemesh.
  • How can you meet them? The Meet the Orthodox Tour by Abraham Tours helps give a window into the relatively closed community. Visit a traditional Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood to explore the day to day lives of the local community and learn about their special customs from an insider’s perspective.

Israeli People as Jewish Settlers

  • Overview: ‘Jewish Settlers’ is a term that may be broadly applied to Jewish inhabitants of areas which Israel gained control of during the 6 Day War in 1967. Settlements may take the form of large towns, urban suburbs, frontier villages or outpost settlements. Israeli settlements are a contentious issue. The general international consensus is that the establishment of Israeli settlements on occupied territories is illegal. This population of settlements are not very homogenous. Depending on the nature of the settlement, some parts of the population consider themselves Religious Zionist, some are Orthodox, some are idiological youths, some are students, some are immigrants from the Soviet Union that weren’t too familiar with the political landscape of Israel and some consider themselves as secular economic migrants from the expensive center of the country.  
  • Population Size: By 2014, it was estimated that the total Israeli settler population had reached around ¾ of a million people.
  • Where will you see them? There are Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank. The international community considers the West Bank as occupied Palestinian territory, that in its totality, or in part, should constitute a future Palestinian State. 
  • How can you meet them? The Hebron Dual Narrative tour explores the gritty realities of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict.  The tour visits the Israeli settler stronghold in the center of the overwhelmingly Palestinian city of Hebron, before crossing over to the Palestinian controlled side.  The tour is, in turn, guided by a local Israeli guide, followed by a local Palestinian guide.  In order to deepen your understanding of the complex realities on the ground, Abraham tours runs a series of Dual Narrative Tours

Ethiopian Jews

  • Overview: Today there are around 150,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent residing in Israel.  A large proportion of the Ethiopian Jewish population arrived in Israel in 2 main waves of immigration, in 1984 and in 1991.  This community are refered to as Beta Israel, and lived in around 500 small villages spread over a wide area of Ethiopia among a predominantly Christian and Muslim population. It is thought that Beta Israel had been isolated from mainstream Jewish communities for at least a millennium, however maintained their Jewish faith and traditions.
  • Population Size: Represent around 1.75% of the lsraeli people.
  • Where will you see them? Today they live throughout all of Israel’s main population centers. In recent years, both Ethiopian Jews and refugees from East Africa have brought with them the delights of their cuisine – no trip to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is complete without trying their regional dish; “injera”. 

Jews from the Former Soviet Union

  • Overview: Don’t be surprised if you hear people speaking Russian in the street.  As the iron curtain fell, a massive wave of Jews and people claiming Jewish origin immigrated en-masse to Israel.  Around 1 million people from this region immigrated to Israel over the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • Population Size: Originally around 1 million people, however, much of the community is well integrated into Israel society and it is difficult to distinguish them from mainstream Israeli society.  As with other immigrant groups, a defining characteristic is the type of food eaten at family gatherings.
  • Where will you see them? Throughout all Israeli urban centers.

Moroccan Jews

  • Overview: One of the largest Jewish Israeli groups are the Moroccan Jews. Moroccon Jews arrived in large numbers during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Today, many young Israelis of Moroccan or partial Moroccan descent are already 3rd or 4th generation immigrants. For the most part, only the 1st and some of the 2nd generation of immigrants can speak Moroccan or French. Today this community is defined by their family values, cultural contributions to Israeli society, a somewhat traditional, but not necessarily orthodox approach to Judaism and of course their cuisine; the most famous dish being “ Moroccan Couscous”.
  • Population Size: At least 1 million Israel Jews have at least partial Moroccan descent.
  • Where will you see them? Throughout Israel, however during the 1950’s many Moroccans were settled in remote development towns in order to establish a population presence in strategic areas.
  • How can you meet them? The Gaza Border Reality Tour by Abraham Tours visits Sderot as part of a broader tour to understand the complex realities of the Gaza Border area. Sderot was established as a development town in the aftermath of the Israeli Independence war. Moroccan Jews arriving in Israel were settled there, as were they in many other areas of the country.

Yemenite Jews

  • Overview: Jewish people that originate from Yemen. The vast majority of the population arrived in Israel between 1949-1950. Jewish History in Yemen goes back around 2,500 years. According to tradition, Jews first began living in Yemen before the destruction of the 1st Jewish temple.
  • Population Size: There are around 450,000 Jews of Yeminte origin that make up a significant portion of the Israeli people.
  • Where will you see them? Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa all have notable populations of Jews of Yemenite descent.
  • How can you meet them? Abraham Tours Local Food Experience in Tel Aviv tour explores a traditional Yemenite neighbourhood of the city. In spite of gentrification, much of the neighbourhood retains its charm and there are many opportunities to taste traditional Yemenite Jewish foods.

Arab people and people of Arab origin.

N.B. The Palestinian Population of the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank number around 4 million.  As a tourist it is possible to explore the West Bank and Gaza border region. On an individual and personal level, Arab residents and Citizens of Israel may consider themselves to be a part of the general Palestinian population or part of the general Israeli population and in some cases a part of both. 

Muslim Arabs

  • Overview: Muslims Arabs represent around 18% of the Israeli people, the vast majority of whom follow Sunni Islam. Islam has been present in Israel & Palestine since the 7th Century. Jerusalem is refered to as “Al-Quds” in Arabic, meaning; “The Holy” and the city has a special place in Islam. It is home to the Al-Aqsa mosque which is considered the 3rd holiest site in Sunni Islam. N.B. It is important to note, that Muslim Arabs also make up the vast majority of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza strip.  
  • Population Size: There are around 1.9 million Arab Israeli citizens of Israel – around 84% of this population are Muslim.
  • Where will you see them? Muslim Arabs live in villages, towns and cities throughout the country – in some areas of Israel they represent the majority of the population, for example in parts of the central Galilee.  
  • How can you meet them? Many Arab villages and towns in the Galilee region have a mixed population of Arabs from different faith groups.  To experience true Arabic hospitality and great local cuisine, don’t miss out on visiting the historically important city of Nazareth.  

Israeli People as Christian Arabs

    • Overview: Christianity has a long history in the region. Historical and Biblical sources claim that Jesus lived in Roman Judea, conducted his mission in the Galilee, Jerusalem and the surrounding region and according to many traditions is buried within the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, accordingly for Christians, Israel and Palestine represent the Holy Land. Many Arab Christians are descendants from Arab Christian clans and  Nabatean traders that didn’t convert to Islam, and as such consider themselves as indigenous peoples of the land.  Others originate from Arabized Christians of Antiochian Greek origin. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, Christian Arabs have the highest level of educational achievement among all population groups.  As with Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs are not obliged to do compulsory military service, however a small minority choose to enlist.
  • Population Size: There are around 135,000 Christian Arabs, that represent around 9% of the Israeli Arab population or around 1.5% of the population of Israel. 
  • Where will you see them? Christian Arabs live in many mixed Arab villages in the Galilee, but the largest population of Christian Arabs can be found in Haifa and Nazareth.
  • How can you meet them? Why not visit Haifa and the north of Israel on a day trip with Abraham tours to get a taste of this very special region.

The Druze

  • Overview: The Druze are an Arabic-speaking religious group that live for the most part within Israel, Lebanon and Syria. It is considered a monotheistic Abrahamic religion. The Druze religion incorporates elements of Islam, among many other religious beliefs, however they consider themselves as a distinct religion and do not identify as Muslims. The Druze communities in the region are historically located in mountainous and highland areas, where they were able to maintain their distinct beliefs and practices. It is custom for Druze to wear baggy pants called a Sherwal that was well suited to agricultural work, since the Druze are mountain people who worked traditionally as farmers. The Druze community serve in the Israeli army as part of a pact that the community made with the State of Israel in 1948.  Interestingly, many of the Druze community of the Golan Heights still maintain that they are Syrian citizens, while the Druze of the Galilee identify as Israeli. 
  • Population Size: Approximately 150,000 people, or around 1.5% of Israeli people are of Druze origin.
  • Where will you see them? The Druze communities live in a handful of Druze or mixed Druze / Muslim towns and villages in the Galilee region of Israel and in addition their are 4 Druze villiages in the Northern Golan Heights. The biggest Druze town is Daliyat al-Karmel, which is a short bus ride from Haifa up to the Carmel Mountains.
  • How can you meet them? A trip to the Golan heights isn’t complete without a stop in one of the local Druze villages. The Abraham Tours Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights Tour visits many of the highlights of the region, with a lunch stop in Mas’ade – don’t forget to try Druze Pita with labneh

Bedouins

  • Overview: The Bedouins are historically an ethnic group of nomadic Arabs who inhabit the desert regions of North Africa and the Middle East.  Bedouins are traditionally divided into clans or tribes and historically share a culture of goat and camel herding. The vast majority of Israeli bedouins adhere to Sunni Islam and comprise a part of the wider Arab Muslim population of Israel. The relationship between Israel and the Bedouin communities is a complex one. There have been efforts to encourage a sedentary lifestyle and house Bedouins in organized townships, however this has been met with limited success and many Bedouin are not content with the current state of affairs. Today the northern Negev region is dotted with unrecognized bedouin settlements and only 7 recognized Bedoiun townships.
  •  Population Size: 200,000-210,000
  • Where will you see them? The vast majority of the Israeli Bedouin community live in the Northern Negev region, with small communities in other parts of the country.
  • How can you meet them? Visiting the world-renowned UNESCO heritage site of Petra is a great opportunity to experience true bedouin hospitality – a MUST when visiting the region!

Other notable minorities 

Israeli people are also composed of peoples from other diverse origins and ethinc groups, each with their own unique origin story.  The following are just a few of the groups that stand out in the diverse Israeli cultural landscape.

Circassians

    • Overview: Israeli Circassians are descendants of people from Circassia that were settled in the region by the Ottoman Empire in the 1870’s. Today they speak Circassian and Hebrew, and many also speak Arabic and English and they adhere to Sunni Islam. Men from the community also do mandatory Military Service.  
  • Population Size: 4,000 people
  • Where will you see them? There are 2 Circassian villages in Israel; Kfar Kama & Rehaniya – both villages are located in the Galilee region.

Copts

    • Overview: Coptic Christianity has its origins in Egypt and North Africa. There is a small community in Israel.
  • Population Size: 1,00-
  • Where will you see them? On the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you will find the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. 

Samaritans

    • Overview: The Samaritans are a people that have an ancient link to the holy land and maybe familiar to many from their prominent presence in the Bible – most Christians have heard of the story of the “Good Samaritan”.  The Jewish people and the Samaritans have a shared history in the region that goes back milenia, and the Samaritan people are considered an ethno-relgious group that originated from the Israelites.  The Samaritans hold only the 5 books of Moses to be sacred, and reject later Jewish scriptures. In such, they maintain that they follow the true religion of the ancient Israelites.
  • Population Size: only 818 people (415 in Israel and 381 in the Palestinian Territories).
  • Where will you see them? They have communities in the Israeli city of Holon and in Kiryat Luza in the West Bank.

Armenians

    • Overview: Armenian presence in Israel dates back to the 1st century and the Armenian Patriarchate in the old city of Jerusalem was founded in 638. Israeli Armenians are Christian and often speak Armenian, Arabic, Hebrew and English.
  • Population Size: 1,500 people
  • Where will you see them? The majority of their population live in Jerusalem, with around 800 living in the Armenian quarter of the Old City. 
  • How can you meet them? Take Sandeman’s Holy City Tour tour to learn more about the history of the Old City of Jerusalem and its significance to Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Former Soviet Union 

    • Overview: From the 1990’s onward, over 1 million people immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Among the immigrants, some spouses were not of Jewish origin and a portion of the immigrants were not culturally Jewish. In Israel today, many Russian run convenience stores stay open on Shabbat, and import vast arrays of Russian food produce. Russian stores are known for selling dry cured meats and even bacon, which is hard to come be in a majority Muslim and Jewish country. As with their Jewish copatriats that immigrated at the same time, they are often well integrated into Israeli society and indistinguishable from other secular Israeli people.   
    • Population Size: Difficult to determine.
  • Where will you see them? In all large Israeli population centers.

African refugees

    • Overview: African migrants began to cross the border from Egypt to Israel around the second half of the 2000’s.  Many fled persecution and hardship in Eritrea and Sudan.  Due to the fact that their place of origin is considered unsafe for them, they are granted temporary protection, residence and are usually eligible for work visas.  However, their status needs to be renewed every 3 months and Israel has been broadly criticized for granting asylum to very few claimants. 
  • Population Size: There are around 40,000 African migrants in Israel with an unguaranteed legal status. 
  • Where will you see them? South Tel Aviv’s Neve Shaanan neighbourhood is home to a sizable number of refugees from West Africa.
  • How can you meet them? The Other Tel Aviv – Food, Culture, People tour by Abraham Tours will introduce to the Neve Shaanan neighbourhood. Hear remarkable and unheard stories of those who fled their home countries in search of safety and a better life and taste a variety of delicious traditional cuisines and snacks that originate from different parts of the world.

African Hebrew Israelites

    • Overview: The community also refer to themselves as Black Hebrews.  Their presence in Israel began in the 1960’s, with a group of African Americans, many from Chicago, who claimed that they are descended from the 12th tribes of Israel.  Today their community number around 5000 and they were officially granted permanent residence in 2003. 
  • Population Size: 5000
  • Where will you see them? Dimona, Israel

Foreign Labourers

    • Overview: By some estimates, the foreign labourer population of Israel numbers around 250,000 – which makes this community of significant size in relation to the total population of the country.  Foreign workers in Israel work primarily in the fields of agriculture, constructions and nursing.  Due to agreements with specific countries, many carers in Israel are of Philippine origin and many agricultural workers are of Thai origin.  
  • Population Size: 150,000-250,000
  • Where will you see them? The Tel Aviv central bus station is a truly eclectic and strange place. It’s brutalist architecture has become home to a local Philipine food market among many other obscure businesses 

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